Revision letter basics

The revision letter is what the author turns to first when they’ve received your edit to understand your overall feedback regarding what needs to be done in the revision. It guides the author’s revision. It can also be used as a standalone tool for conveying big-picture concerns to authors when they don’t have the budget for a full developmental edit.

When you do a full edit, you’ll be zooming in and out of the big picture. You’ll spot smaller-scale problems like how Jack has brown hair on page 10 and blond hair on page 20, and no peroxide has been introduced in between, and then you’ll spot bigger-scale problems like it isn’t clear why Jack does any of the things he does.

The smaller-scale items don’t belong in the revision letter. You’ll use queries to call out to the author the fact of Jack’s changing hair color. It needs to be fixed, but on the scale of things that readers are going to fling a book against a wall for, it’s not that high on the list. It doesn’t need to be mentioned in the revision letter.

The lack of motivation that you’ve identified, though, is what the revision letter is for. In that letter, you’ll outline the major big-picture items that need to be addressed.

You’ll also give suggestions for how the revision could be accomplished—but remember that there are many roads to Rome, so the author doesn’t necessarily have to follow your map to get there.

You’ll call out the big-picture items in the manuscript as well, so that the revision letter and the queries work together. For example, you might have a query in Chapter One that says, “Here, Jack’s motivation for setting the house on fire isn’t clear” and you might have a query in Chapter Five that says, “Here, Jack’s motivation for robbing the liquor store isn’t clear” and a query in Chapter Nine that says, “Here, Jack’s motivation for murdering his boss isn’t clear.”

We can see that these queries have some similarities. So, in the revision letter, you’ll discuss this overall problem more fully:

“One of the concerns I have is about Jack’s character development. I found it difficult to understand why he does anything he does. For example, I was mystified when he set the house on fire—it wasn’t clear what he expected this to accomplish. The same with robbing the liquor store and murdering his boss; what problems did those actions solve for him? 

“I’d say this problem with motivation is connected to the lack of a clear goal for him. For example, if his goal is to hide evidence that he was once a meth dealer before reforming and running for office, then burning down the house might make sense. I recommend inserting at least one new scene that addresses his goal for each of these actions [etc.]. I’ve added queries in the places in the ms where this concern was most significant.”

In this way, the revision letter and queries mutually reinforce each other. After reading the revision letter, the author should be not surprised by any of the developmental concerns you raise in the queries. In other words, if you have a query that suggests rewriting the ms in first person, this should also be addressed more fully in the revision letter.

As with any criticism, it helps to start and end with the positive, so don’t forget to tell the author what’s working effectively: [AU: I really enjoyed getting to know these characters. On my first read-through, I read this in one sitting—it’s a real page-turner!]

Then get into the overarching concerns. These are the main things you need the author to focus on in their revision. I typically cover three-to-five main problems, although I may also include a summary paragraph of issues that need to be addressed in a second round of development or that the author will want to consider as they revise. But I don’t want to confuse or overwhelm the author by trying to cram everything possible into the letter.

Extensive edit letters can be counter-productive. Three-to-five pages is about right, though seven or eight pages is fine if you’re including examples from the ms to illustrate your points. If your revision letters are twenty pages long, though, you’re probably not going to elicit a successful revision. It’s just too much. It will overwhelm the author and make it impossible for them to feel that the work can be accomplished. A revision letter should motivate the author to want to do the work, not make them curl up into a ball sucking their thumb.

Editors sometimes feel like they need to include everything but I’m sure you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle—twenty percent of the problems cause eighty percent of the dysfunction?

Same thing with editing. If you can just get the author to fix the twenty percent of the problems that are causing eighty percent of the mess in the ms, they’ll have a dramatically improved ms, even if they don’t fix those eighty percent of the problems that are causing twenty percent of the mess.

Another of my guiding editorial principles is, “We are looking for improvement, not perfection.”

Join the Club!

how to become an editor

New to story editing? Begin at the beginning.

Similar Posts